Calculating the value of pie.

piOf all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.

Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.

I own a car that is now entering into its sixteenth year of life. I don’t drive it much, and I take care of it to the best of my (admittedly limited) ability, but nobody’s ever going to mistake it for a new vehicle. The headliner is pulling loose, the paint is dinged, the driver’s-side window no longer goes up and down: entropy. Even if I had shrink-wrapped the car sixteen years ago and stored it in a climate-controlled bunker in the desert, it would still not be the same car it was when it first rolled off the VW assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. Plastics deteriorate, fabrics sag and pull, the same chemical and mechanical processes that created the materials and parts continue long after the papers are signed and the keys handed over, turning gaskets into ash, warping delicate fixtures, and disabling sensitive electronics.

One of the most important features of entropy is its adherence to what is known as “the arrow of time”. This is to say that entropy, unlike any other measurable quantity in our universe, only works one way: things break down with the passing of time, going from more structured, more organized, to less. A muffin, a Maserati, or a man will, given enough time, be reduced to component atoms, and the carbon in an oatmeal muffin is absolutely identical to, and interchangeable with, the carbon in my red blood cells. That carbon will not spontaneously reorganize itself into a bird or a pot roast, not without the expenditure of enormous energy and even more time — during which everything else is still sliding into oblivion.

At absolute zero, -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit (-273.15 degrees Celsius, zero Kelvin and Rankine), everything stops. All activity in the sub-atomic world of electrons and protons ceases, and matter becomes inert and unchanging. This is, however – like the perfect marriage or consumer-friendly air travel – an imaginary state: in the real universe, nothing achieves absolute zero for long. Even in deepest space, beyond the light of any star, the background radiation left over from the Big Bang keeps everything percolating away at about four degrees Kelvin. Things slow down Out There, but they don’t stop. Here, in the world of light and air and heat that sustains us, entropy churns along at a pretty frantic pace. We can irradiate our tomatoes until they glow in the dark, persecute termites and mildew and dry rot with all the passion and inventiveness at our disposal, but in the end, the leftover pasta sauce goes furry and green, the shower curtain has to be replaced every August, and the tires on that bicycle you haven’t taken out of the garage since the Reagan administration crumble away to nothing.

 *  *  *

Make a pie on Sunday, and then eat a slice of it every day thereafter. At some point you will discover that the dish is empty, and there’s no more pie. This is irritating, but it’s not the fault of immigrants, or healthcare reform, or political correctness: it’s just that all pie is finite, you ate all your pie, and sooner or later you have to either make a new pie or find something else to snack on. You have to change. You have to do something different. No rhetoric, no rallies, no ranting on cable news is going to make that pie last forever. The universe moves on; things are consumed, becoming something else; life happens.

I wish I still had the hair and teeth and knees I had at twenty. I wish there were still places on Earth that were represented on the maps by big glamorous empty areas marked “Terra Incognita” and “Here there be dragons”. I wish a new Chrysler Imperial cost $1,500, and doctors made house calls. I wish I could read “The Haunting of Hill House” for the first time, again and again and again.

I wish a lot of things, but the universe really doesn’t give a damn what I wish – the universe has much more important things to do.

So, what are my options? Obviously, pretending that entropy just isn’t happening is not very helpful. Nor is simply throwing up my hands and locking myself into the basement to wait for everything to grind to its messy and inevitable end. Punish the Jews, or the Muslims, or the gays, or the poor, or the people in the big fancy house down the street for the fact that my pie didn’t last as long as I had hoped it would? None of these things is going to make the tiniest bit of difference in the end; I’ll just be making life more difficult for people who are probably no more to blame for my bad knees and thinning hair than the Queen of Sheba. Things are going to change. Tomorrow will never be exactly like yesterday. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way the universe works. I can learn to deal with it, change with it, or I can shoot myself in the head before entropy has a chance to wind things up for me. My choice.

For the moment, however, here we are. I’m still going on and on about all sorts of things, and you’ve actually managed to stay with me all the way to here. So sit with me for a bit longer. We’ll share some of my pie.

 

A mess of gooey, gluey, goodness.

pogo11I was standing behind a woman at the grocery store checkout a couple of days ago, patiently awaiting my turn, browsing the tabloid headlines and marveling at the variety of lip balms that are available to today’s consumers, when I happened to glance down at the products that were at that moment being zipped across the scanner and into the bags.

Mountain Dew. Cheetos. Ground beef (a ten-pound package). Wonder bread. Hot Pockets (six boxes). Hot dogs (four eight-packs). Microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. Little Debbie snack assortments. Potato chips. Frosted Flakes. Frozen pizza. An explosion of colors, textures and flavors that have never occurred in nature.

All told, a hundred and seventy dollars worth of groceries, with collectively less nutrition than a pound of pine bark. Continue reading

An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

What to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that “fuzzy” isn’t working, so out comes the thesaurus.

Let’s see: “Blurry”? That gives us “enirma”, and we’re not having any of that. “Indefinite”? Too many letters. “Soft”? Too few.

Here we go: “Vague”. Pencil it in, and … yes! It fits. We fill in a few of the blanks around it and we see that everything works.

. . .

The scientific method is like that crossword puzzle. There are some things you’re positive about, some you’re reasonably sure you’ve figured out correctly, and some you just can’t quite pin down, but the important thing is that everything interconnects, so a piece of the puzzle that’s clearly wrong will begin to stand out pretty quickly as the rest of the clues are filled in.

Individual facts, like the words in the crossword, can be tried, rejected, accepted, or replaced, but what matters in the end is the internal consistency of the entire structure, and the way the whole puzzle evolves and solidifies as more and more blanks are filled in. “Fuzzy” was perfectly acceptable until “enizma” came along; then it became clear that there was an error somewhere, because the bigger pattern wasn’t holding together.

Until Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the applecart in the sixteenth century, the generally accepted view of the solar system placed the earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it. This system worked fine for centuries, but as time passed and the observed data began to fill in more and more blanks, problems appeared. To make the system fit what we could actually see happening in the sky, the orbits of all the heavenly bodies had to be incredibly complex. Mars and Jupiter needed to stop dead and then go backward from time to time; eclipses could only be explained by mysterious invisible objects casting shadows at odd angles; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn had to perform amazing spirals and loop-the-loops.

All the blanks in the crossword had words in them, but the answers weren’t making any sense.

Copernicus looked at the problem and realized that maybe “fuzzy” wasn’t the right word for seven down (figuratively speaking). He made a very simple adjustment in the prevailing system: he moved the sun into the center, and the planets into orbit around it, with their own moons orbiting them in turn. Now, suddenly, all of the orbits were ordinary ellipses, smooth and steady; eclipses were nothing more than shadows cast by one object on another; and the positions of all the bodies could be predicted centuries in advance by calculations any educated person could understand. It was no longer necessary to accept “enizma” as a word.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.”   – Nicolaus Copernicus

Even Copernicus didn’t have all the answers. With the passage of time, we’ve developed more sophisticated tools with which to observe our universe, and we’ve found questions that would have crippled the thinkers of the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century no one was equipped to measure the gravitational interactions between and among the planets; we didn’t know anything about how spacetime itself was organized, or the subtle effects of solar cycles and nearby stars on planetary orbits; the very size and shape of the universe could only be guessed at.

But still, even today, we can build on what Copernicus gave us all those years ago: we don’t have to try to come up with some elaborate excuse to allow us to use “enizma” for fifteen across. We can use logic and common sense to resolve the dilemma, and from there we can move on to new questions, and search for better answers to old ones.

In religion, no one questions the unreasonable answer or the wildly complicated explanation. We just accept that “enizma” is correct, even if it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of sense, because that’s what faith is: accepting without the need to understand.

The fundamental truth of science, on the other hand, is that there are no fundamental truths: we observe, we theorize, we experiment, and when we find a model that works, we build from there, knowing that it’s best to use a pencil, because we may still have to go back and change an early answer based on what we’ve learned since.

And that, dear reader, is why I love science. An enigma is a challenge to be met, a question for which each new answer always leads to bigger and more exciting puzzles demanding to be solved — and if we’re willing to stop at “enizma”, we’ll never have the opportunity.

 

Something In the Dark

maze

I know that you know that I know that you know that I know …

In light of all the recent revelations about government agencies spying on American citizens — and more importantly, all the government’s prevarications and half-truths about the level of detail and the purposes to which that information is being put — I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a reasonably surveillance-proof browser on my computer.

Of course, a part of me says “what the hell for?” Spying on me would be a pretty unsatisfying exercise for even the most eager NSA spyhunter: I don’t lie on my income taxes, I never drive over the speed limit; I don’t even split my infinitives or tear the tags off my pillows. We keep hearing the people who support the surveillance programs saying things like “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”  It’s a pretty safe bet that I have nothing to hide: then what am I worried about?

I think perhaps it’s the very fact that I am such a stickler for the rules, that I do try so hard to always behave properly, to do the right thing, that makes this all so unsettling to me. Who hasn’t been in a situation with the bank, or the insurance company, or the IRS, where you suddenly find yourself in an alternate universe where a bizarre and incomprehensible logic prevails? You find an error on a bank statement, or the cable bill, you make a phone call, and suddenly you’re trapped in some kind of game in which all the rules are absolutely secret, known only to your faceless opponents. You’re in violation of a whole boatload of requirements and regulations that you never knew existed, that you were never intended to know existed, and you’re going to have to pay the price. No appeal, no recourse, no exit.

To be fair, we’re told that the spying program has thwarted “dozens” of attacks (Gen. Keith Alexander) and might have prevented the September 11, 2001 attacks has it been in place at the time. Here again, unfortunately, we’re faced with a case of “trust me”. A group of individuals, operating in blackest secrecy, insists that what they’re doing to us is for our own good, but can’t really tell us precisely how, or why, or on what occasions. Like the balaclava-masked terrorists themselves — or a gang of KKK thugs — if what they’re doing is so noble and necessary, why do they hide their faces? Democratic institutions are often based on compromise: if surveillance programs can’t be designed to operate within established constitutional limits, let’s at least provide a system of rules that allow us, the voters, whom these programs are allegedly designed to protect, some role in the process, and some avenue of appeal when we believe that the process is being abused. If we’re so far gone that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, must hide from the people, then I think we’ve already lost the war.

–  In Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel “The Trial”, his protagonist Josef K. finds himself suddenly yanked from his humdrum world and forced to stand trial for a crime that no one will specify, by an authority that refuses to identify itself, before a tribunal of faceless strangers.

–  In the “war on terror”, the US government is able to attack its citizens with documents known as “National Security Letters”, in which the offense is not specified, the authority behind the action is secret, and it’s a federal crime to tell anyone — even a lawyer, even your family — that this is happening to you, or has ever happened.

I imagine Josef K. would find that situation pretty damned easy to recognize.

This, I think, is what worries me. I want to do the right thing, to behave, to follow the rules, but when the rules are hidden, and the right thing cannot even be defined, I get stressed, and confused, and angry. I begin to see the institutions I want to trust, that I want to believe in, turning into faceless monoliths, hooded tribunals circling a table in a darkened room, exerting their will on a populace too powerless — or too emasculated by the fear and ignorance such procedures help engender — to demand justice, or at least a little daylight.

I begin to see the people and organizations that I rely upon to protect me becoming the very enemy that I had hoped they would protect me from.

In England during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there existed an organization called the Star Chamber. This was gathering of men who sat outside government, in secret meetings, operating outside the law, to exercise the will of the king in matters too delicate or too unstable for normal political processes. It was intended as a compromise to protect the nation from revolt and social upheaval, but in many cases the Star Chamber simply devolved into a system for persecuting opponents of the men in power — there were no public hearings, no appeals; cases were tried without witnesses, often without the defendant even knowing that the trial was taking place until punishment reached out of the dark and struck him down.

I am what many would call a “big government” liberal: I believe in the ability of government to improve the lives of its people, through intelligent, enlightened intervention in matters of social change, in health care, in environmental controls, in all of those collective issues that matter so much to us but are beyond our ability, acting individually, to undertake. I can’t guarantee the safety of the water I drink, or the food I eat — that’s a job that requires all of us working collectively. I can’t build a bridge across the creek a mile from my house, not alone: I need my neighbors, my community, my government, to step in and help me.

But when the government begins to act in a way that appears to be completely independent from the people — concealing its actions and its motivations from the people, and in fact begins to treat the people as an enemy that must be watched, and controlled, spied upon and manipulated, even lied to … I worry.

We’re told that our elected representatives in Congress have been privy to what’s happening from the beginning, that they have approved of what the NSA has been doing. The implication there is that, as our proxies, those representatives represent us, that they represent our will in this matter, so if they approve it’s a sign that we approve. Does anyone remember a candidate promising to support secret tribunals and warrantless spying in the last election cycle? I understand that, according to current polling data, a majority of Americans are okay with the surveillance — at least for the moment — but how can we support a program we aren’t supposed to know exists?

And most importantly of all, how can we defend ourselves if we don’t even know we’re being attacked? Who is the enemy? Al Qaida, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Branch Davidians, unhappy right-wingers with a carload of fertilizer — or millions of Gmail and Verizon customers going about their daily lives, unaware that their government believes they may be part of some vast threat? I think there is a difference.

If we willingly accept becoming both victims and criminals in this enterprise, then we may be seeing what has been a magnificent experiment in democracy grinding to an ignoble and grimy end.

Surveillance-proofing my computer? I’ve downloaded the package, but I haven’t installed it. After all, what do I have to hide?